A champion of education and racial justice
April 23, 2021
Longtime activist Bebe Coker receives UD’s Medal of Distinction
Her name is Beatrice “Bebe” Ross Coker, but she has been called all manner of things in her 86 years on this planet.
Coker knows who she is, what she’s made of and what she’s made for. Her mother, Cora Wood Ross, made sure of that, she told a virtual University of Delaware audience Wednesday evening, April 21, as she delivered a Presidential Lecture. The event was hosted by UD President Dennis Assanis and First Lady Eleni Assanis.
That deep sense of identity and self-worth has fueled Coker’s lifelong advocacy for education and racial justice and steeled her against forces that sought to diminish, dismiss or silence her.
She called her talk “The Visibility of Growing Up Invisible,” because, she said, Black people and their intelligence, contributions, power and beauty have been pretty much invisible to white people for longer than this nation has existed.
The high-profile events of this past year have proved this to be true yet again. In video after video, we have seen unarmed Black men, women and youth confronted, deemed suspicious, assumed to be both criminal and violent and shot or choked to death on the spot. The names of the slain are added to a list that stretches more than 400 years.
President Assanis welcomed Coker as a timely and essential truth-teller.
“I cannot think of a more important or more relevant time in our society than right now for this conversation,” he said. “In so many ways, real progress on eliminating racism and prejudice can feel both close and yet still so far away. While I certainly don’t have the answers to solving this problem, I am absolutely sure that remembering our history and continuing the fight for equality are essential to making progress.
“And that is what Bebe Coker has done so well for so long.”
In her talk, Coker gave listeners her “experienced opinion” on the value of good communication with everyone, reflections from her own experience of segregated America, suggestions for improving the education of all children and thoughts on how UD might best address its own pursuit of equality. (Much more below.)
After her talk and a question-and-answer session, Assanis introduced John Cochran, chairman of UD’s Board of Trustees, who bestowed on Coker the University’s Medal of Distinction.
Because the event was held online in these times of pandemic, Cochran and Coker were not in the same place. Instead, the medal was placed on Coker by her daughter, Dr. Joan Coker, a surgeon who also is a member of UD’s Board of Trustees. Coker’s two other daughters — Laurie Coker Reid and Julie Coker — were online to witness the event.
The Medal of Distinction is the highest non-academic award bestowed by UD’s Board of Trustees. First awarded in 1979, the Medal recognizes individuals who have made humanitarian, cultural, intellectual or scientific contributions to society; who have achieved noteworthy professional success; or who have given significant service to the University, community, state or region.
Coker fits that description on many levels.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Coker graduated from Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) and moved to Delaware in 1960, where she has spent her life addressing problems wherever she found them, using poetry, theatre, her work in social services, street-level activism and service on commissions and civic organizations to shine light on inequities, negligence and other evidence of systemic racism.
She has stood before governors, legislators and judges, at microphones in many a public meeting and beside Black families as they tried to navigate systemic obstacles that their white counterparts never knew existed.
“I am of the experienced opinion that talking with each other in open and honest discussion is foundational to our growing to know and understand the reality of all humanity,” she said.
The “invisibility” referenced in the title of her talk refers to the reality that Black people are invisible to most white people, who too often refer to “those people” or “they” or “them” — nameless individuals of no particular consequence.
“We need to allow the gifts that are inherently shared by all human beings to allow us to be part of that shared humanity,” she said. “Let’s stop being guilty of assuming that we know others by their appearance, the color of skin, their looks, their dreads, their braids or whatever. Or because of what you have read or seen or heard on the surface about other people that you know who they are.”
How has the Black community survived the harsh realities of slavery, segregation, systemic racism?
“Our survival has been propelled by the depth and beauty of self-definition,” she said. “I know who I am. I do not ask you for your permission about who I am. I was raised to know that who I am by any definition is quite enough. It’s sufficient, it’s good enough. By seeing my truth, the many definitions of other people for me and about me were their opinions, not even important.”
That’s one reason she enjoys talking to people. Those conversations can make a difference and shed light on what has been painfully invisible to so many for so long.
She has enlightened many a journalist and historian, provided missing context and ample evidence of her claims, corrected erroneous or one-sided accounts and been a champion of the truth.
She brings lived experience and eyewitness perspective to these encounters, having grown up in the segregated confines of America’s Jim Crow laws. She was born at home because the white hospital wouldn’t accept Black patients. White America was blind to and detached from the rich culture, professionalism and educational prowess in its Black communities.
“The duty of teachers in my day was to know how to teach me, to ensure my learning. Failure was not an option. They taught the child and not the circumstances. You were taught to believe, indeed to know, that your mind was not to be wasted and that the primary reason of your living and learning was to serve other people, to benefit your brothers and sisters, to show to a disbelieving world, particularly of white Americans, that we were visible, we were victors, we were not victims, and that we were capable of achieving whatever our minds determined needed to be achieved.”
In a 2010 profile published by the News Journal, Coker was described as “the Rosa Parks of education in Wilmington,” an agitator, encourager, rule breaker and waymaker.
“How many people jump in and do what they can without caring who gets credit?” Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker asked in that article.
Coker would be one.
Her service has been recognized with prestigious honors including the Order of the First State, the Jefferson Award, the John Taylor Education Award and induction into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame.
After Coker’s talk, Fatimah Conley, UD’s interim chief diversity officer, steered her through several questions that had been submitted in advance.
One asked for Coker’s advice to teachers and professors who were educating students who might feel invisible.
“We have allowed the profession of teaching to be relegated to an ‘oh, by the way’ profession,” Coker said. “That is ridiculous and dangerous. There is no more honorable or higher profession than teaching.”
Children are with teachers five days a week, seven hours a day for 12 years, Coker said. Who those teachers are is critical to the educational progress of those children.
“Part of the solution is for this community — the whole United States — to come together and recognize that teachers are pivotal, educational engineers. They should be trained as such and compensated as such.”
Asked how she has persevered through years of oppression, Jim Crow and ongoing racism, Coker said she has focused on doing what she could do to change things.
“A talent I have is communicating with other people,” she said. “I reach out to whatever institutions need shoring up that I could do anything about. What was going on and what can I do to be helpful?”
It is important to know who you are, she said, “defining yourself for yourself and not allowing anyone else’s definition to decide for you who you are going to be.”
Also sustaining her has been a constant, unwavering faith in God.
“He has not let me go yet,” she said.
Asked how UD could address the challenges and obstacles to equity on campus, Coker said policies on paper are a step, but they only go so far.
“Look at what your policies and practices are, the stuff that’s on paper,” she said. “Then fold the paper up and decide that you’re not going to just memorize it. You’re not going to just talk about it, read it and give it away as a brochure and a book to get students in, but you’re going to encourage students and staff, every level of staff, to understand that everybody has the right to literacy, the right to learn, the right to just be…. Recognize that humanity is just that – humanity. Something as stupid as disliking somebody or finding yourself being racially prejudiced is the biggest waste of time I’ve ever seen. Your hatred is not going to change the color of my skin.
“Decide that you’re going to accept people for who they are and what they are and it’s OK.”
Recognizing contributions, success and service
Among the previous recipients of the University’s Medal of Distinction are Roxana Cannon Arsht, judge; Ruly Carpenter, former owner of the Phillies; Yetta Chaiken, benefactor; Hilda Davis, educator; Katherine Esterly, physician; Wilbert and Genevieve Gore, philanthropists; Dallas Green, Phillies manager; Stephen Gunzenhauser, conductor; Cynthia Primo Martin, diversity activist; Joshua Martin, judge; Charles Parks, sculptor; Dan Rich, educator; Helen Farr Sloan, benefactor; Ada Leigh Soles, educator and politician; James R. Soles, educator; Chuck Stone, journalist and educator; Chaplin Tyler, executive; and Lodewijk van den Berg, astronaut.
Presidential Lecture with Bebe Coker: youtube.com/watch?v=LRVZF-lrYTw